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Pig Gene-Editing Tool May Allow Animal-To-Human Organ Transplants

Pig Gene-Editing Tool May Allow Animal-To-Human Organ Transplants

They then used CRISPR-Cas9 - a gene-editing technology that allows for highly precise adjustment of DNA sequences - to deactivate the problematic sites.

The research team, working for biomedical start-up Egenesis, announced in the journal Science that it had produced the piglets with inactivated porcine endogenous retrovirus, known as Perv.

Organ transplantation is a controversial topic at the best of times. The ability to use a pig heart, lungs or other body parts could shore up the shortage and save numerous lives.

The WHO says while animals are a potential source of high quality, readily available live organs, xenotransplantation carries risks, especially the spread of known or unknown diseases. More development needs to be done on the process.

Yang believes that CRISPR can accomplish what previous approaches have not: make multiple, simultaneous changes in pig DNA so that the animals' organs work, and work safely, in people.

But it is still unclear whether PERVs can infect humans and several scientists - including Dr Jay Fishman, who helped author the 1998 study - have now become less concerned. For one thing, tissue from a different human-let alone a different animal-is enough to freak out our immune systems and cause them to attack.

Scientists have edited the pig genome to deactivate a family of retroviruses. And in labs, PERVs can jump from pig cells to human cells.

"I generally hesitate to say we've solved a two-decade-old problem, but in this case, we have", he said, Scientific American reported.

To produce piglets, the researchers then employed a standard cloning technique, inserting the DNA-containing nuclei of these edited cells into egg cells taken from the ovaries of pigs at a Chinese slaughterhouse, which allowed each egg to develop into an embryo and implanted it in the uterus of a surrogate mother.

Cloning is still far from a flawless science, and many of those cell lines didn't make it very far.

Biotech start-up eGeneisis, one of the leaders of the study, said in a statement: "This research represents an important advance in addressing safety concerns about cross species viral transmission". She promised that their team will continue to engineer the Perv-free pig strain to make xenotransplant safe and effective.

Of course the thought of exploiting animals in such a way isn't everybody's cup of tea.

In 2015, Church and CRISPR-Cas9 expert Luhan Yang co-founded a company called eGenesis, with the hopes of eventually selling their genetically modified pig organs.

As with many medical technologies, it is likely ethics and sentiments will evolve. In the context of xenotransplantation, those elements pose two separate challenges.

The pigs are going to save us.